“The Coffee House of Surat” Summary by Leo Tolstoy

The Coffee House of Surat Summary Leo Tolstoy
“The Coffee House of Surat” Summary by Leo Tolstoy

“The Coffee House of Surat” is a short story by Leo Tolstoy, first published in English in 1901. It can be found in the collection Twenty-Three Tales. In it, a group of patrons in a coffee house engage in an animated conversation about God and which religion has his favor. Here’s a summary of “The Coffee House of Surat”.

“The Coffee House of Surat” Summary

A Persian theologian, who’s lost his belief in God, stops at a coffee house in Surat, a popular meeting place for travelers. His slave sits outside, near the door. After having a cup of opium, the Persian asks his slave if he believes in God.

He does, and from under his clothing he produces his God, a small wooden idol made from the fetish tree, which is worshipped by his people.

The other patrons who overhear the exchange are surprised. A Brahmin rebukes the slave for his idol. He explains that Brahma, the creator, is the one true God. His true priests worship him in the temples of the Ganges, where Brahma has protected them.

A Jewish broker objects. God is not in India and doesn’t protect the Brahmin caste. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the true God, the one who protects the Israelites. His people are scattered now, but one day they will be gathered in Jerusalem with the temple restored to its ancient splendor. The sentiment moves him to tears.

Before he can continue, an Italian missionary interrupts. God no longer favors the Israelites and their religion is dying. No nation has God’s favor—He uses the Catholic Church of Rome to call people to salvation.

A Protestant minister says only those who serve God in spirit and truth according to Christ are saved.

A Turk addresses both Christians. Mohammed superseded their faiths twelve hundred years ago. Unlike the Jewish faith, the true faith of Mohammed spreads and grows. Only his followers from the sect of Omar, not Ali, will be saved.

The Persian theologian who set off this discussion was formerly of the sect of Ali, and is about to reply. Before he can, the coffee house erupts into a confused dispute, with each person affirming that only in their home country is the true God worshipped. Only a Confucianist, from China, sits quietly in the corner.

Noticing his silence, the Turk appeals to him for support. He knows how Mohammedanism has been embraced in China. The others want to hear his opinion, as well.

The Confucianist thinks a moment, then gives the view that pride is the stumbling block between members of different faiths. He offers to tell a story to illustrate the point.

“The Coffee House of Surat” Summary, Cont’d

From a ship, he stopped on the island of Sumatra. While sitting in the shade with some diverse company from the ship, they were approached by a blind man. He lost his sight from gazing too long at the sun, trying to figure it out and capture its light. Based on what he knew of the sun, he reasoned that the sun wasn’t liquid, fire, spirit or matter, therefore it was nothing. He lost his sight and his reason, eventually concluding that the sun didn’t exist.

As night falls, the blind man’s slave prepares a night-light from a cocoanut, using the oil to soak the wick. He doesn’t know what the sun is, but he knows this light allows him to see in the dark.

A man with crutches explains that the sun is a ball of fire that rises out of the sea and goes down in the mountains. He sees it himself.

An Indian man from the boat says a ball of fire would be extinguished by the water. The sun is the Deity Deva; when it goes dark it’s been swallowed by evil serpents. The prayer of the priests sets the sun free to rise again. The man with crutches has obviously never been outside his island.

The Captain of an Egyptian vessel who’s sailed many places knows the sun isn’t a deity. It lights the whole earth, not just India. It rises far in the East and sets far in the West. His grandfather, who sailed even more, confirms this.

An English sailor says the English know the sun’s movement better than anyone. It rises nowhere and sets nowhere. They’ve all just sailed to many places and have themselves how the sun is always far away, regardless of where they are. He tries to illustrate the sun’s movement around the earth with diagrams in the dirt, but gets confused. He turns it over to the ship’s pilot, who knows these things.

The pilot disagrees with everyone. The sun doesn’t move at all. The earth goes around the sun and revolves, so that the sun shines all over the world and on other planets besides. They should look at the heavens, not just the ground.

The man from China explains his story. It’s pride that makes people want a God for their own country, to contain Him, even though the world can’t contain Him. Human built temples can’t compare to God’s temple, the earth, which serves as their model. No feature in a temple can compare to the good acts of men and women. The nearer people draw to God, the more they will imitate his qualities. He sums up his message thus:

“Therefore, let him who sees the sun’s whole light filling the world, refrain from blaming or despising the superstitious man, who in his own idol sees one ray of that same light. Let him not despise even the unbeliever who is blind and cannot see the sun at all.”

Everyone goes silent and ceases disputing over their faiths.

I hope this summary of “The Coffee House of Surat” was helpful.